Why Teenagers Do Stupid Things

Raising Daughters | Teenagers Do Stupid Things


Why do teenagers do stupid things? In this podcast, Dr. Tim Jordan describes the major reasons why teenagers make bad choices, including their immature prefrontal cortex, the brain’s reasons behind peer pressure, hormonal changes during puberty, and their supercharged reward system. He then offers some strategies teens can learn to make better decisions and control their impulses, providing valuable insights for both parents and adolescents navigating the challenges of this period in their lives.

Good books on this topic:

  • Brainstorm, by Daniel Siegel
  • The Willpower Instinct, by Kelly McGonigal
  • The Female Brain, by Louann Brizendine
  • The Male Brain, by Louann Brizendine
  • Science of Extreme Altruism

Listen to the podcast here


Why Teenagers Do Stupid Things

I want you to strap yourselves in because I’ve got a lot of information I want to offer you about our topic. Our topic is why do teenagers do stupid things? I’m sure there have been 1,000 times when your son or daughter has done something and you’ve gone to them and raised like you can’t believe it and you’re like, “What were you thinking?” The easy answer to that question is they weren’t. I’m going to offer you several reasons why teenagers do “stupid things,” take unnecessary risks or act before they think. I’m going to talk about the immature brain, especially the immature prefrontal cortex. I’m going to talk about the reward system in their brain. I’m going to talk about mirror neurons and other parts of the brain that set them up to “do stupid things.”

I don’t want to overload you with information, but when we’re done with this episode, I want you to be able to look at your teen and go, “I get it. I understand much better why you have a hard time with your impulse control, why your emotions get the best of you, why you have a hard time controlling your emotions.” There are lots of good reasons about their brain maturity and their hormones and all that, underlying their reasons why that’s true.

Peer Pressure

The first thing I want to talk about though is peer pressure because we talk about that a lot. I’m sure you’ve talked to your kids about peer pressure, but I want to talk to you a little bit about what’s going on in the brain that sets them up to be vulnerable to peer pressure. Individual choices that we all make very powerfully shape what other people think, what they do, what other people want and what we think that they want from us.

All of our brains have been wired to connect because if you’re connected, if you’re in a group for 150,000 years that we’ve been humans, we have a much better chance of surviving. Being connected and in a group and having a sense of belonging protected us. We survived. Being alone meant death. The truth is that we’re still hardwired to connect in that way. Even though it’s different times, it’s not as dangerous, it’s not prehistoric, and it’s not uncivilized, we still have that wiring in us. Our mind, our brain want us to prevent being rejected from the group. It’s constantly comparing ourselves to everybody in the group and asking ourselves questions in our brain unconsciously like, “Am I fitting in? Am I doing the right thing? Am I doing anything that might get me kicked out of the group?”

It’s harder now. We’ve always had that wiring in our brain, but now we can compare ourselves to everybody on the planet instantaneously and always, which adds pressure to our poor teenagers. There’s so much energy around about comparing themselves and that’s a normal thing, especially as they’re going through so many changes with puberty, their bodies, their interests, their values, and all that.

I think it’s even heightened by what goes on their devices. It doesn’t cause it, but it sure does amp it up. It makes it easy for a lot of teens to walk around with an, “I’m not good enough,” story going around in their heads because they’re constantly comparing themselves. There are also a lot of things that then become contagious. There’s a part of our brain called mirror neurons, like I mentioned before, that’s always keeping track of things.

It’s causing us sometimes to then mimic other people. For instance, if you would watch a father or mother of a little baby infant, a little baby infant sitting in a little pumpkin seat and you walk up and the baby smiles and you smile back and then you squeeze their little legs and they coo or they giggle and then they turn away, so we turn away, then they come back and then we come back. Over those first three months especially, it’s so healthy and so vital that we establish that normal back-and-forth rhythm where it’s hard to know who’s mimicking who.

The reason that we’re doing that, that mimicry is because it’s a way for us to connect with our infant and for them to connect with us. The same way if you’re in a group and if you’re talking to somebody one-on-one and then you put your hand on your cheek, a lot of times, they’ll do the exact same thing unconsciously, wanting to connect, wanting the other person to know, “I’m with you. I see you. I understand you.” Those gestures of connection are contagious. They’ll go back and forth.

The other thing that’s contagious is emotions. I tell teens all the time, the girls I work with, “If you hang around with people and they’re all depressed all the time, it’s hard not to catch that and be more depressed.” I also tell girls when it comes to finals times in schools, especially in high-pressure schools, maybe private schools, girls walk in that building and they’re all stressed out and they all start doing this competition like who’s the most stressed. They’ll start competing with things like, “I was up until 2:00 in the morning studying. The next girl says, “I was up until 3:00.” Another girl says, “I haven’t slept in three days.” They compete for who’s the most stressed.

If you walk into the building and all the girls around you are stressed out because of finals coming up, it’s hard not to catch that. It’s hard not to be stressed because our brain is saying, if they’re stressed, maybe you should be too if you want to be connected. Rule-breaking is contagious. When we see other people ignoring the rules or breaking the rules, we tend to follow those impulses more. We’re much more likely to give into more of our impulses if we see other people doing it because our brain is saying, “If other people are doing this, it must be good. It must be true. Therefore, I’ll follow suit.”

We're much more likely to give in to our impulses if we see other people doing it. Click To Tweet

It’s a useful survival instinct when you think about it. If we look and see what other people are doing and our tendency is to trust what they’re doing, if you do that, it makes work living in a community easier. We don’t have to know everything. We can follow suit with other people. We can save our resources for other things. These mirror neurons are not a bad thing. They’re a survival thing.

It’s also interesting that what we think others do matters more than what they’re actually doing. One of the best indicators of whether or not a student is cheating in school is whether or not they believe other students are cheating. That’s more powerful than consequences. It’s more powerful than the reality because oftentimes the reality is not true. It’s not true that everybody’s cheating or everybody’s having sex, but if we think they are, then we’re more likely to mimic that and want to do it. Social emotions like pride, shame or guilt evolve to keep us in good standing with our tribe, and with the people around us. Imagining social acceptance or rejection can cause us to do the right thing.

That mimicry thing is also a good thing. It can be a positive thing because we can also catch good self-control. We’re more vulnerable to temptations because evolutionarily speaking, our minds evolved to think negatively because our ancestors lived in constant danger. They had to constantly be on the lookout for danger, anticipating anything that could harm them or the tribe. We’re much more tuned into those negative things, even internally.

However, peer pressure can swing positively. Study groups result in higher grades for everybody. Team workouts and fitness challenges that translate into better baseline health and sports for people, student leaders, and steering other kids toward service projects help. We are looking and we’re seeing what other people are doing, things like vaping or cheating or whatever, but we’re also noticing the positive things that people do. If we’re around people who are doing more positive things, we’re more likely to do that. Thus, how incredibly important it is to surround ourselves with the people we want to surround ourselves with. That peer pressure piece is important and it’s a lot of it is brain-related and for good reason.

It is incredibly important to surround ourselves with the kind of people we want to surround ourselves with. Click To Tweet

The “Immature” Nervous System

The other thing that happens is during our teen years, our adolescent years, our brains are immature in a lot of different ways. A lot of things happen also hormonally. For boys, for instance, between the ages of 9 and 15, during their puberty years, their testosterone increases twentyfold. I read someplace if testosterone was a beer, a nine-year-old would be getting about one cup of testosterone a day. A fifteen-year-old would get the equivalent of about two gallons per day. That’s how much our testosterone goes up if you’re a boy during puberty. Due to testosterone, especially, in boys’ action and their exploration, the risk-taking brain circuits are running at high speed, urging boys to feel strong, brave and invincible.

Hormones do that for boys, which makes them set up to do more risk-taking behaviors, anger, and aggression circuits are primed with hormones. A boy’s desire for dominance, risk-taking, exploration, power, social hierarchy, aggressively defending and protecting our loved ones. Testosterone and vasopressin and cortisol supercharge their brains. Their bodies are primed for fight or flight in reaction to challenges. All that’s going on for boys might push them to do more crazy risky kinds of things.

Also, during puberty, adolescent brains become more sensitive to their peers putdowns. What other people think of them, their social approval and disapproval, circuits are activated again to keep them from making social mistakes because if you make too many mistakes socially, you might be ostracized. You might be kicked out of the group. Social acceptance, fitting in meant survival.

The other thing for males too is they become very status-conscious about hierarchical groups. If you’re closer to the top of the pile, you get a much better chance of surviving. There’s also a part of the brain called the right ventral lateral prefrontal cortex. Adolescents are much more distressed than adults when they become teased or excluded by their peers. That part of their brain helps people cope with negative evaluations by peers by reducing their stress.

That part of the brain is still developing in teens so it’s much less effective at controlling distress when they’re being left out by their peers. That contributes to them engaging in more risky and dumb behaviors to prevent being excluded, to fit in, to not be left out, to not be kicked out of a group. In adults, that part of their brain becomes more mature and makes adults less vulnerable to those kinds of behaviors by their peers.

Here’s the other thing that happens in our brains. The limbic system of the brain, which is in the back, is the impulsive feel-good center of the brain. It’s where our emotions resides, the amygdala resides. That matures faster than our prefrontal cortex here in the front. One of the measures of brain maturation is the ability of our brain to send signals quickly from one part of the brain to the other. What happens is when an emotion comes up in our limbic system or on a teenager’s limbic system, they get overwhelmed with emotions because that part of the brain is much more developed.

What you want to have happen in your teenager is for her there to be a quick message sent from the back of the brain, the limbic system, the emotional centers to the front of the brain, to our prefrontal cortex, our executive center that can then say to that part of the brain, “It’s okay, we’ve been there before. Don’t overreact to this. Breathe. Relax. You got this. Don’t make a stupid choice. Think about this. Pause. Don’t react. It’s okay.”

That’s what we need for our teens to do. That’s when we ask the question, “What were you thinking?” We want that to happen so that they’re thinking from their prefrontal cortex instead of “thinking” from their emotional centers, in the adolescent brain that’s immature. The prefrontal cortex can’t do that yet. The impulses go much slower between different parts of the brain.

There’s a substance called myelin that coats all of our nerve fibers. If you want to be a good tennis player, you will take a tennis ball and your racket and you will hit the ball against the wall or to somebody. Every time you hit the ball across the net, a little piece of myelin coats the nerve fibers they have to do with hitting a tennis ball.

The same thing happens if you are learning math problems or if you are kicking a soccer ball. Those different parts of the brain get a little bit more myelin on the nerve fibers. Over time, after you’ve hit thousands of balls, the myelin gets thicker and thicker. The impulses go quicker and quicker so that you can develop what people call muscle memory.

Muscle memory is myelin memory because myelin coats the nerve fiber so that the impulses can go faster. It prevents leakage of energy from the nerve fiber so it’s much more efficient, which is why we get better at making choices. We get better at making decisions. We get better at tennis and math and anything else that we practice. That process of myelinization, that process of the prefrontal cortex maturing isn’t fully finished until our kids are closer to 25 or 30 years of age.

I’d read in the past it was more like 18, 19 years for girls, more like 22, 24, 25 for boys. The last few things I’ve read in articles says it’s actually later than we thought. Especially for boys, you’ll see a lot of young men in their twenties who are still doing stupid things and risky behaviors. Girls mature faster. Their brains mature faster. That’s all because of the prefrontal cortex having to mature the nerve fibers needing to be myelinated. All of that takes time.

Even when the limbic system of the brain, the rewards system of the brain, and the emotional centers of the brain have done a lot of maturing, the road to the prefrontal cortex is still under construction. Traffic heading there moves too slowly. It makes middle schoolers and high schoolers and even young people who are in their early twenties more reward-centric and much less able to reign in their emotional responses to things.

If a teenager is at home around their parents, their amygdala doesn’t get as amped up. We become like their prefrontal cortex before their prefrontal cortex is ready to handle things. Being around us can help them to temper their emotions. Not always, they still lose it, but we help. On the other hand, if they’re out with their friends, their limbic system gets more amped up. There’s more energy to that part of the brain.

There have been studies that show that. If you’re at a party that’s still with people their age, all kinds of novel pleasure-seeking opportunities, their impulses are flying all around the brain, especially in their limbic system, their emotional centers, and the reward center. That’s why it’s so hard for them to say no and to take care of themselves.

I’ve also read research that says that if you look at situations in life where, where something an accident happens and someone is in danger, men are much more likely to risk their lives to save other people more so than women. The research consensus is that men tend to be more willing to put themselves at physical risk to help other people, especially if it’s someone that they know. It’s also interesting. They interviewed people who had won the Carnegie Mellon for bravery. What that study showed is that the heroic actions were not well thought out. They were more intuitive, even impulsive, rather than a product of thoughtful thinking and deliberation. It was an impulse thing, so in that sense, it’s a good thing that we don’t overthink it in those moments, if you will.

Sometimes we’ll see young people and we see them physically maturing. I’m going to do an episode soon about how girls mature much earlier than they used to physically with puberty, and how it starts earlier. I’ll talk about why that’s true. What happens is girls will start maturing as early as 8 or 9 years of age. By 10, 11, 12, they look a lot older than they used to a generation ago.

Oftentimes, we end up assuming that they also can act like someone who looks that old and we treat them how old they look, as opposed to how old they are and how old their brain is. Kids think according to their chronological age, not to their apparent age. We have to always remember that it’s their brain that’s the most important thing, not the physical changes of puberty.

Reward Systems In Their Brains

Another thing I want to talk about here for a few minutes about why teenagers do stupid things is the reward system in their brains. The pleasure centers in a teenage brain are much more numb, less easily activated at baseline. They get bored easily. They tend to need greater thrills. They like watching video games and gory movies because their brains that time of their life are a little bit more numb.

The teen baseline level of dopamine is lower. It takes a little bit more to get them excited, but once they get excited, the release of dopamine and those kinds of chemicals is higher in response to stimulating experiences. With the increased activation of the neural circuits that utilize dopamine, the dopamine release is enhanced. It increases the reward drive and it causes teens to gravitate towards more risky thrill behaviors.

That increases in the presence of their peers or even when they think other people might be observing their actions, i.e., nothing happens today without cameras being out, photographing and noticing everything. If there are peers there, then the reward system gets more amped up and they think people might be watching it, it also gets more amped up. Those increases in the reward system of the brain at the increased release of dopamine. It increases their susceptibility to addictions and impulsivity.

The earlier a person starts doing things like smoking pot or smoking cigarettes or doing drugs, the more vulnerable they are to becoming addicted because of the immature nervous system. They’re much more likely to become addicted the earlier they start those kinds of things. They have a hard time seeing the big picture because of their prefrontal cortex immaturity. They’re more focused on the having fun the moment they have a hard time switching to their long-term thinking because they’re so in the moment, thinking short-term and having fun right now. They have a sense of the outcomes of a dangerous situation, but they tend to place much more emphasis on the potential positive aspects of the situation, the thrills, the fun, the shared experience, the excitement of breaking the rules, so they tend to minimize the risks.

The earlier a person starts doing things like smoking pot, smoking cigarettes, or doing drugs, the more vulnerable they are to becoming addicted because of the immature nervous system. Click To Tweet

Let me spend a couple of minutes talking about the reward system in the brain. The reward system in our brains is the most primitive motivational system in our brains. It evolved to propel people to act and to consume. It’s different from the pleasure centers of our brain. When our brain recognizes the opportunity for reward, it releases dopamine, which tells the brain what to pay attention to get to. Remember now, when our brains were forming 150,000 years ago, we were foraging around. We were not sitting in a house or in a city. We were forging. We may go days with no food. When we saw a bush full of blackberries, our brains learned to say, “Eat it now because it might not be there tomorrow.”

When dopamine gets released, it creates a feeling inside of all of us, a feeling of arousal. We’re more alert, more awake, we’re more captivated. Our brain recognizes the possibility of feeling good and we’re willing to work to get that feeling. When the reward system is activated, it’s different than the pleasure system. The pleasure system would make us feel better. The reward system, when it gets activated, creates more feelings of seeking, wanting, craving, desire, and anticipation. It’s not going to create feelings of satisfaction, pleasure and happiness because our brains wanted that promise of reward to keep us hunting, gathering, working, or wooing someone of the opposite sex because all that helped us to survive. If you failed to act in that moment, the moment was gone and then you had less of a chance of survival. That’s what’s important to remember. That’s why we get so stressed out about certain things.

The brain’s reward system did not evolve to respond to future rewards. The initial reward that our reward system was targeting was food, again, because we were foragers. Rewards that were far off 60 miles away, can’t get to it until tomorrow were irrelevant to our ancestors. It was irrelevant to daily survival. We needed that reward system to ensure that we would snap up those rewards, i.e. Food, when they were readily available, which was in the moment.

Dopamine in that reward system marks new objects we think will make us feel good and it marks them as critical to our survival. It hijacks our attention. We become fixated on obtaining it. It’s nature’s trick to make sure we don’t starve because we’re too lazy to pick the berries now. The function is to make us pursue happiness, not to make us happy. When that reward center releases dopamine and we start getting that seeking and craving feeling, it also sends a message to the brain stress center. The brain starts to release stress hormones.

Not only do we want that thing, it makes us anxious as we anticipate the object of desire. It’s not like, “I want it,” it’s like, “I need it.” It’s like a matter of survival. Every one of you reading this has felt that. When that phone pings at your side, it’s not like, “I can look at that later.” It’s hard not to pick it up and look at it because their stress hormones get released quickly. It’s like we get stressed and anxious about that thing.

They did some studies with some chimpanzees and humans and they gave the chimps and the humans the choice between getting 2 treats immediately or you can wait 2 minutes and then you would get 6 treats. Which one? Students chose to wait only 19% of the time. The chimpanzees were willing to wait 72% of the time. Humans prefer short-term, immediate rewards when it’s right there in front of us. The want becomes overwhelming and it puts us in that reward-seeking mode.

Temptations like we have around us have a short window of opportunity. The reward must be available now and we need to see it. It’s interesting that if you see a piece of chocolate cake on the table, then your reward center gets activated. You get a shot of dopamine and then you crave it and you want it. If you take that chocolate cake and you put it in a refrigerator and you walk into another room and you don’t see it for 5 or 10 minutes, it allows your brain to cool off. Our prefrontal cortex has the ability to kick in and say, “We don’t need that piece of chocolate cake. That’s not good for you, so just avoid that.”

In the moment, it’s hard to do that because we see it and we want it. However, if you have a break from it, that’s when we can allow the impulses to go from our limbic system, our reward system to the prefrontal cortex, which then can then take over and take better care of us. That is why we need to teach our teenagers when they’re tempted, when they get to this impulse thing, they start to notice that feeling inside of them, taking a break is key to them allowing the time or impulses to travel to their prefrontal cortex so it can take over. It creates some physical space to allow them to have that part of their brain take over.

As our teens get older, every year, their prefrontal cortex gets a little bit more mature. Every year they lay down more myelin in between the reward system, their limbic system, their emotional systems and the prefrontal cortex to make those impulses slowly but surely go quicker and quicker. As I mentioned earlier, it’s not slowly together until the mid-20s or late 20s, 25 to 30, somewhere in there. Later for boys than girls.

Strategies To Help Kids Make Better Decisions

Also, the brain does some pruning during adolescence. Things that aren’t important anymore because they haven’t used that part of their brain. Those parts, those neurons get pruned. Things we’re doing more get enhanced. That helps. I think what we have to do is to give our kids some education. Let’s talk about some strategies. What can we do to help our teens not do stupid things even though the brain is working against them, the reward system is working against them and all that? The mirror neurons are in some ways working against them.

One of the things is to educate them. Have them read this. Have them read things so that they understand what’s going on in their brains and understand why it’s hard for them to control their emotions. Why do their hormones go up and down, those estrogen and progesterone levels during their 30-day cycle? Up and down. It causes shifts. It makes it hard for them not to be emotional. To not have the prefrontal cortex and the myelin makes it even harder.

We need to educate them about the changes that are happening in their brain, and the hormonal changes in their body and talk about mirror neurons. I talk about that with girls all the time when they start coming into my office, talking about how stressed they are around exam time or finals time. When I talk to them about how it’s how stress can be contagious, they all nod their heads like they get it. It helps. They don’t have to be at the mercy of it if they have an understanding of it. It gives them the ability or more of an ability to take care of themselves. I think it’s also important to talk to them about those mirror neurons and the value of having people around you who reflect your values and what you want.

It's important to talk to teenagers about those mirror neurons and the value of having people around who reflect your values and what you want. Click To Tweet

My youngest son had a lot of good friends and most of them he started having in kindergarten and first grade. He picked up a few more in middle school. For some reason, I don’t think he picked them in first grade because they were good students and cared about school. This group all did pretty well in school. They all were focused on their academics. They also did sports. They did all kinds of things, but they cared about their schoolwork. I think that helped. My son cared. I don’t think he needed that, but I think it helped a lot. If you’re around people who, instead of studying, are getting high every day, it’s harder to stay focused because of those mirror neurons.

I think your kids need to understand that if they don’t want to smoke pot and they’re hanging out with people who smoke pot all the time, it’s hard not to smoke pot. They need to understand that and we need to have that become a conscious thought in their brains. Help them become more in control of who they hang out with. I think I talked about this one time in the show, but anyway, I think it’s good to go back in time. I think that the example I’ve given before is that my wife and I were called to an all-boys high school. This was years ago. There were some boys. This was halfway through October and November of their first semester in high school. They were freshmen.

About 7 or 8 of them had been caught breaking into cars at a park one night. They got caught by the cops, the school found out and the school was trying to decide, “Are we going to expel them? What are we going to do?” Instead of expelling them, they decided to create a breakfast club with Dr. Tim and Ann Jordan to come on a Saturday and work with them. One of the most important things I think we did with the boys was we had them go back to that choice point moment. “Should I or shouldn’t I?” We all hit those choice points and every one of our teenagers is going to hit choice points when it comes to drinking, smoking, sexuality, cheating or doing any dangerous, impulsive behavior. There’s always a fork in the road that says, “Should I or shouldn’t I?”

When we hit that fork in the road, we usually have an internal alarm that goes off that says, “You might want to think about this.” We all have that internal alarm. Our intuition, it’s like Pinocchio. The thing that helps us with our temptations, our common sense. I want every one of these teens that you have in your homes and those boys on that Saturday, I had them become aware of how your alarm feels inside of your body. For many of them, they had never thought about that.

“It’s a funny feeling in my stomach. My heart starts to pound faster. I get a tightening in my chest, maybe a tightening in my throat. I start to sweat. My mind starts to race.” Every one of your teens needs to become aware of that alarm that goes off when without a choice point, “Am I going do something stupid or am I going to make a healthier choice?”

Have them become aware of how their alarms feel in their body. Go back to that moment. Did they hear the alarm they did in that moment, that time when they made the mistake? You have to ask them the question, “In retrospect, why do you think you ignored it?” They need a chance to look inside and say, “Why did I ignore my common sense, my intuition, my gut?”

For those boys that I worked with on that Saturday in the breakfast club, the number one reason that they ignored their alarm that Saturday evening was that they were new to this school. All of them were freshmen, just boys in high school. They hadn’t made any good friends yet. They felt lonely and out of it and a little bit bored. They wondered if they were making a bad choice.

They were sitting at home on the weekends feeling like a lonely loser, if you will. When they got a call, “Do you want to meet at the park and walk around,” a lot of them had a sense of, “I know who these people are. I wonder if we’re going to be doing something naughty.” That was their first alarm. They ignored it because the choice was, “Do I stay at home and feel like a lonely loser or do I say, sure and I’ll go, at least I’ll start having some connections?”

They get to the park and then the first kid broke into a car, they were stealing phones and whatever else. Another choice point came for the rest of them like, “Should I or shouldn’t I?” They all did because what overrode the alarm was, “If I don’t do it, they’re not going to ask me to come out and hang out again. I don’t want to seem lame. I don’t want to be the only one that doesn’t do it,” so they all did it. That was why.

We helped them all become aware of that whole process and why they made the mistake. They all make commitments to themselves, like, “What’s going to be different next time? What will you do?” On that Saturday morning breakfast club, most of them decide things like, “I’m going to start joining a club. I’m going to join a winter sport so I can start finding new connections because if I have some connections, I have to start making some friends. I’ll be less vulnerable in those moments again.”

You can go through that same process with your teens if they make a mistake to have them learn from it. When they did something stupid, go back in time, have them become aware of the alarm, have them become aware they ignored it in that moment and especially why they ignored it and what they’re going to do about it. That’s so invaluable for them to learn from their mistakes. Otherwise, they’re going to repeat it. If they keep repeating a mistake with certain things, that means they’re not ready for whatever that is, going out, having a phone, having social media, whatever.

I mentioned before that we tend to our teenager’s prefrontal cortex sometimes before theirs is ready to take charge. They need us. Sometimes, it’s like having bumpers. When your kids were little and you took them bowling, they had gutter bumpers so that it would keep them, they would stay in the right path. I think sometimes having us around, like if they have their friends over. When my kids were in their teen years, we’d walk downstairs every so often with snacks or whatever, not just to deliver snacks, but also so there was an adult presence. We weren’t down there screaming at them or anything.

We tend to be our teenagers’ prefrontal cortex sometimes. Before theirs is ready to take charge, they need us. Click To Tweet

Just having an adult around helps. That energy somehow translates to them being a little bit more under control, which is why you don’t want your kid to have a party when their parents are out of town because then it gets out of control. If a teen is in one of those moments where a choice comes up about the dark side or not making a mistake or not doing something risky or not, I think it’d be good to teach them to take a quick break, to remove themselves from a situation, make up some excuse, say, “I need to go check on this or that.” Walk away and have a few minutes to allow some impulses to go from the reward system to the prefrontal cortex. When things are out of sight, they’re out of mind. Our prefrontal cortex can kick in.

We go from the short-term, got to have it reward system feeling to a longer-term view, which is usually a much more mature, thoughtful reasoning decision. A 5- or 10-minute break from the action can allow their brains to do a better job of making a better choice. Also, sometimes, they need some education and a reality check about certain things. I mentioned earlier about how what’s more important than whether or not people are actually cheating is what your kid thinks about how many people are cheating. Give them some information about the percentage of people in high school who are having sex, who vape, who do drugs, who do whatever because sometimes they feel like they’re the only one who’s not. That’s never true.

In my weekend retreats, in summer camps with girls, when we have discussions in our circles, a lot of times I hear that from them. They feel like they’re the only ones. When other girls in the circle talk about how they also do or don’t do certain things, it’s like a sigh of relief like, “I thought I was the only one.” It makes them less vulnerable to know that they have some support and other people feel the same way they do.

Another strategy is in those moments, have them imagine how proud they’ll be if they don’t give in to the willpower challenge. How proud of themselves they’ll be if they avoid doing something because ahead of time, they know it’s not the right thing to do. It also helps sometimes ahead of time to be thinking about somebody who they know has good self-control. Thinking about a friend, parent or an adult who has good self-control, increase their willpower in the moment.

You can have your teen learn to ask themselves, “I wonder what that person would do. What would my older sister do? What would my parent do?” That’s true. The closer they are to the person, it becomes a more powerful influence. The other thing is, when they’re at a choice point, one of those forks in a row, doing the good thing or doing the stupid thing, if they can imagine themselves the objects of other people’s evaluation, that can become a powerful tool to boost their self-control.

I saw a study that showed that teenagers are much more likely to use condoms if they imagined feeling ashamed if other people knew they had unprotected sex. If you can imagine being other people evaluating you and judging you about some decision you might make in a negative way, that can become motivation to making a better choice.

I’ve also had lots of teens who, what I help them do sometimes is I help them become aware of times when they’ve made a bad choice, when they’ve given in the temptation, when they’ve done something to fit in a negative way, how that feels afterwards versus how they feel when they’re true to themselves, when they’ve made a good choice, when they’ve made the choice that they know is in their best interest. There’s a huge difference between how you feel about yourself.

When you make that first choice, you oftentimes feel discouraged. You might feel ashamed. You might feel guilty. A lot of regret. When you make a choice that’s based upon what’s right for me and based upon being authentic to yourself and your values, there’s a lot of self-pride that comes with that. A lot of good feelings about yourself. You feel a lot more grounded and mature. My goal for this episode was to give you information, moms and dads, teachers, and people who work with kids, about what’s going on for teenagers that might cause them to be impulsive, take unhealthy risks, make dumb decisions, bad decisions, etc.

To understand it at a level which hopefully you’ll be able to look at your teen and go, “That makes a lot more sense now why you have a hard time with impulse control, why your emotions get the best of you, why sometimes you’re out of control with your emotions. You have a hard time bringing it back.” It makes sense. The immature prefrontal cortex is such a powerful tool for us as adults that keeps us in line. It’s not able to do that yet. It’s harder for them because of the immaturity and because of the slow impulses that go between the emotional centers, the reward system and the executive center of our brain.

Also, the mirror neurons is a huge one, that left the part of the brain, the right ventral lateral prefrontal cortex. They’re much more susceptible to their peers, feelings about them, their judgments, and their evaluations of other people. If they’re so worried about that, oftentimes they will give in to things. They’ll give into temptations and all because of that, because they’re so worried about whether the people are going to think.


Raising Daughters | Teenagers Do Stupid Things


Mirror neurons can also work for them if they learn to surround themselves with healthy people who tend to make better choices. People who are more mature, people who have the values that your kids want to emulate or to be like it helps a lot. They’re still going to make bad decisions sometimes because of everything I’ve talked about. Also, remember that reward system. That dopamine reward system, they get a bigger jolt of dopamine than we do as adults.

Their brain is more susceptible. They are more sensitive to it. It makes it much harder for them to handle temptations. It makes them much more impulsive. It makes them much more susceptible to things like addictions, etc. They have to learn to catch themselves to become aware of what it feels like when their reward system is being activated, when they start getting into that craving, seeking, wanting feelings inside of them. To learn to slowly but surely become aware of that and then to learn to take breaks to give the longer-term part of their brain time to catch up and to make a better choice. Education, awareness, learning from their mistakes, learning about their internal alarms, learning to do something about that, all that helps. It’s not a fail-safe system, but it certainly can help them get through without making as many bad decisions, if you will.

I appreciate you coming by here as every week. You catch that at www.DrTimJordan.com, some books and articles I’ve read about the brain. I love this stuff. It helps me to understand what’s going on for teens, and why they act the way they do. I think it’s helpful for all of us. I’ll be back here with a brand-new topic. Thanks so much for stopping by. I’ll see you back here next time.


Important Links


You are now subscribing to our newsletter list for more good stuff!

Family Meeting Guidelines

Get your free copy of these guidelines for effective family meetings!

Scroll to Top